From caves to Stonehenge, ancient peoples painted with sound

They are among a growing number of researchers probing the acoustic properties of ancient sites. Their research, presented this week in Vancouver, British Columbia at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shows that ancient peoples created sophisticated sonic illusions in ceremonial spaces ranging from Mayan temples to Stonehenge.

Humanity’s fascination with sound runs deep. In Utah’s Horseshoe Canyon, ancient people drew artwork where echoes are loudest. Around the world, Stone Age artists typically painted in caverns with the greatest reverberation.

Lubman, a consultant in acoustics, speculates that the association between art and echoes was originally unintended. Instead, ancient artists painted on solid rock because porous rock absorbed their pigments. Solid rock created better echoes.

“Such resonant spaces inspire singing,” Lubman said.




The idea that ancient peoples “painted with sound” refers to the hypothesis that prehistoric cultures may have incorporated acoustics and sound-related phenomena into their artistic expressions, rituals, and architectural designs. While direct evidence of this practice is limited, there are several intriguing examples and theories that suggest a connection between sound and ancient art and architecture:

1. **Cave Art and Acoustic Resonance**: Some researchers have proposed that certain cave paintings, such as those found in caves like Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain, may have been created in areas with unique acoustic properties. It is speculated that ancient artists may have chosen these locations for their acoustic resonance, believing that the sound properties of the caves enhanced the ritual or spiritual significance of the artwork.

2. **Musical Instruments in Ancient Art**: Depictions of musical instruments, such as drums, flutes, and lyres, are commonly found in ancient art from various cultures around the world. These representations suggest that music and sound played an important role in the cultural and religious practices of ancient societies.

3. **Sacred Sites and Acoustic Phenomena**: Many ancient monuments and architectural structures, including Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Giza, and ancient temples, exhibit acoustic properties that may have been intentionally designed or utilized by ancient peoples. Some researchers believe that these sites were constructed with acoustics in mind, possibly for ritualistic purposes or to enhance the auditory experience of ceremonies and gatherings.

4. **Sound Healing and Shamanic Practices**: In some indigenous cultures, sound has long been used for healing and spiritual purposes. Shamanic traditions, for example, often incorporate chanting, drumming, and other forms of sound therapy as part of healing rituals and trance induction. The use of sound in these contexts suggests that ancient peoples recognized the powerful effects of sound on consciousness and well-being.

While the exact extent and significance of the relationship between sound and ancient art and architecture remain speculative, the idea of “painting with sound” offers a fascinating lens through which to explore the sensory and spiritual dimensions of prehistoric cultures. Further research and interdisciplinary collaboration may shed light on the role of sound in shaping human creativity, expression, and cultural practices throughout history.

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